It Took Me 34 Years to Realize I Was Racist

Updated: Feb. 14, 2023

But wait—I have a black friend!

I’m a nurse. I’m a mom of three kids. I’m happily married. I’m a (dyed) blond white lady who spray-tans in the summer. I’m a masters swimmer. I’m a Christian. I am many things, but recently I had to add one more attribute to my list: I’m a racist. And the worst part is that I didn’t even know it. The past few weeks have taught me a lot about internalized and systemic racism and what it really means to be a true friend. I’m hoping to remove “racist” from my list of attributes as soon as possible.

For most of my 46 years of life, I’ve considered myself “woke” and an “ally.” I never make racist jokes. I fully supported the #OscarsSoWhite boycott by not watching it that year. I vote Democrat. I make sure my daughters watch Moana and The Princess and The Frog alongside Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. In fact, I was so convinced I wasn’t racist that I took pride in it, even telling people that I didn’t even see color—I was just that progressive. My one piece of evidence?

I have a black friend

Taneka and I have been friends since the fifth grade when she moved into the suburb of Mesa, Arizona, where I grew up. She was the only black student in my grade, but she was also the only one who had as immense of a collection of Garbage Pail Kids cards as I did. Obviously we were meant to be besties. At the time, it didn’t even cross my mind to ask why there was a Meltin’ Melissa card but no gross incarnation of Taneka. That was one of the first of many, many instances of subtle racism that I would look back on with horror over the past two weeks. (Sound familiar? Here’s the psychology behind how children learn racism.)

Despite her move to Georgia ten years ago, Taneka and I have remained close, texting or chatting at least once a week. So it was her I called first when I heard about the protests over George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis that quickly spilled over into the rest of the country.

“Are you OK?” I gasped.

“You are probably the tenth white person to ask me that today,” she sighed. “And thank you, I’m fine.”

Our conversation turned toward the issues underlying the protests. “Well, at least you know you have one non-racist white friend,” I said, half-jokingly. She didn’t laugh. I wanted her to reassure me, tell me how great I was all these years, and how different I was from those awful other people. She didn’t.

“So, about that…” she finally said. “What did everyone call me in high school?”

“The token black girl,” I responded. “But you even called yourself that! It was an inside joke in our friend group!”

“What else was I supposed to do? If I didn’t laugh, then I risked losing all my friends. But did anyone else have a nickname that reduced them to their color and gender? Nope,” she said. And that was how I began to realize that I’d spent the last 34 years not just being racist but hurting a close friend with my racism.

“Look, I know you love me. Your heart’s in the right place. You were just doing that thing white people do—they don’t notice. And when we do point it out, they don’t listen,” she said. I told her I wanted to make it up to her. I wanted to finally listen.

Learning to see subtle racism all around me

She started out by telling me about all of the slights, big and little, that she endured while we were growing up. There was the sleepover where a friend’s mom who sold Mary Kay offered to do makeovers on everyone, but Taneka didn’t get glammed up because there wasn’t a foundation color dark enough for her skin and all the light, shimmery eye shadows disappeared entirely. The time we were supposed to wear “nude” tights for a dance recital, but there weren’t any in her skin tone, so she’d had to have a pair custom-dyed. The time I asked her why she didn’t get a weave so her hair would be “beautiful” like mine. The time our teacher assigned her a living history report on her “African heritage,” even though her family had been in America for more than three generations and she didn’t know anyone from Africa to interview. The time our English teacher said, “You’re so articulate for a…” and then stopped herself. The time kids wrote the N-word on her gym locker and I told her to just ignore it because it was just a word and it didn’t mean anything. (That was the same gym class, by the way, where our favorite game was called “Smear the Queer.” The ’80s were horrific.)

She continued the list to the present day, reminding me of the last time she’d come to visit. The hostess at the restaurant instinctively turned to seat me first even though she’d arrived first—and I hadn’t pointed out that fact to the hostess. The list seemed endless, but she kept going, talking about things in our society that are inherently racist. She pointed out to me how newspapers always use mug shots of black men who are victims while even white men who are outright criminals get a cleaned-up family picture. How white 19-year-old Brock Turner got a lighter sentence because the judge didn’t want to ruin the “kid’s” potential but that black Tamir Rice “deserved” to be murdered because he looked older than his 12 years. How there are numerous posts on neighborhood social media pages with warnings of “suspicious people” who are always people of color and who usually live there but are still seen as out of place. How people assume that a white news anchor’s wife in a viral video was the nanny because she was brown-skinned.

“I hadn’t noticed any of that,” I mumbled.

“Because you didn’t have to,” she said. “We do. It’s death by a million little cuts.”

Once she pointed out these, and other, examples, I started to see subtle racism everywhere. The next time we talked, I told her how much I was noticing and how angry I was about it. She said that was good.

Here are 14 small ways you can fight racism every day.

Then it was time for me to answer some hard questions

“How many Black friends do you have, besides me?” None. It wasn’t that I was opposed to the idea, but I realized I’d never reached out or tried to befriend any other Black people. I tried to tell myself at first it was because my Arizona neighborhood was largely white, and then I realized the fact that I’d chosen to move to an all-white neighborhood was inherently pretty racist.

“How many Black or Brown people do you see every day?” Several. But they were almost all house cleaners, nannies, or landscapers coming to take care of the beautiful homes in my neighborhood, including mine. My gym, my church, my supermarket—all the places I frequented were mostly populated with white people.

“How many people of color do you follow on Instagram?” I couldn’t think of a single person other than Chrissy Teigen, who I suddenly realized I thought of as “basically white,” as if that made her somehow more interesting to me.

“What have you actually done to help support black people during this time?” And that was when I really began to realize how deep my racism ran. I hadn’t protested or called my representatives or wrote letters to the editor or donated money or tried to get policies changed in my community. In fact, I’d thought all the large gatherings of Black and non-Black people of color were scary, and I’d gone out of my way to avoid them. I told people it was because I was afraid of getting COVID-19, but in truth it was because I was afraid of being a minority. All I’d done to “help” was call my token black friend. And I posted a black square on Instagram—which, if I’m being honest, was only because all my friends were doing it.

“Last question: Do you remember when you told me in high school that I acted so white, you forgot I was Black?” I hung my head in shame. “You meant that as a compliment. It wasn’t.”

Check out these 15 essential books for understanding race relations in America.

Ignoring racism is racist

I’ve reflected a lot over my conversations with Taneka. Even though it’s been incredibly painful, I’m so grateful she took the time to educate me, rather than just cutting me out of her life (which I would have deserved). And I’ve learned a lot, both about myself and society. I hadn’t realized I was racist because of my type of benign, oblivious racism is the norm for far too many white people. I’d thought that by ignoring the uncomfortable topic of race, that meant it wasn’t an issue. (News flash: Black and non-Black people of color don’t have the option of “not seeing color.”) I rationalized that my inaction wasn’t hurting anyone. I didn’t want to admit that I was part of the problem.

I don’t want to be an unconscious racist anymore. In fact, I want to be anti-racist—loud and proud. I’m committed to being better and doing better. Yet I’m still so afraid of the conversation and owning my own role in this tragedy that I’ve used a pseudonym for this article. I still have some growing to do. And maybe you do, too.

Next, learn what anti-racism means and what it means to be anti-racist.

For more on this important issue, see our guide to the Fight Against Racism.

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